San Francisco, 2015-2016
In the lobby of the Twitter building, which is near the Uber building and the Dolby building and a residential tower where $5,500 a month will get you 969 square feet and a parking spot, I visit a gourmet market that makes Saison look like Burger King. I examine a $75 bottle of 2007 Fiorita Brunello, check out a $67 jug of French lavender shampoo, consider a $130 slab of Jamon Iberico Pata Negra (“pure acorn fed Iberian pigs”) and settle for a $6 ice cream cone. Then I stroll outside, absorb the glory of a blue-skies-and-71 afternoon, head across Ninth Street … and have to weave and shake like Steph Curry to avoid a fresh puddle of bubbly urine.
That shower, truth be told, is among many reasons San Francisco is the best place to write in our thrive-or-die republic. It was left by a shouting homeless man whose pants are undone, one of thousands whose blighted survivalism is juxtaposed against the backdrop of the city’s new rich. For a writer, this social clash is literary gold. I said as much to my new editor-in-chief at the Examiner — “You should have someone just walking up and down Market Street every day” — and, for a moment, I thought I should be the man for that beat. Who wouldn’t want a daily pass to view kid tech wizards getting off trains and striding past the encampments, addicts, and other sad stories? Or, in SoMa and the Mission, watching the homeless hassle the techies as they board, rock-band-style, Silicon Valley shuttle buses to Google and Yahoo and Apple and Facebook?
But I am not here to cover gentrification and other ongoing dramas in the most complex and compelling of American cities. I am here to explore a sports scene that, in a different context, is no less fertile for creative material. After a career intermission that had more to do with catching my breath — roughly 7,000 columns and 1,700 ESPN TV appearances, hundreds of radio shows, 14 Olympic Games, 24 Super Bowls, travel to five continents — than a recklessly reported legal case, I find no greater reward than resuming my commentary in the Bay Area, where the striking beauty and exhilarating mystique are accompanied by what we in the sports media call great shit.
Last time I had the potential for this much fun, Snoop Dogg was staring me down before an “Around The Horn” taping, saying, “Who do you think you is?”
Who do I think I is?
I’m the Diddy by the Bay.
San Francisco has been the place for flower children, poets, gold-rushers, tech dreamers, drifters, politicos, and reinventists. Now, I dare say, this is the place for sportswriters. In Chicago, a previous stop of 17 years, I often bemoaned lousy owners and bad teams who were in bed with corrupt media, including two baseball franchises that have won one World Series over a collective 203 seasons. Here, the immaculate Giants have won three in five years, a near-impossible run in the sport’s subsidy-driven parity era, while giving giddy fans a delightful roster of characters ranging from a Mad Bum to a Buster to a Freak to a scooter-driving hipster to a bitterly departed Panda.
Here, the Warriors play the most exciting basketball on the planet, led by the incomparable Curry, whose swag and splash on the court are matched by his decorum and charity work off it (as His Barackness quickly figured out and glommed onto). Here, the formerly regal 49ers are in a chaotic and cursed freefall, thanks to a front office that (1) allowed internal politics and professional resentment to subvert Jim Harbaugh’s ultra-successful reign; (2) chose a curious successor in tongue-tied, unproven Jim Tomsula; (3) absorbed a mass exodus of high-character leaders; and (4) watched helplessly as Chris Borland, my early leader for Sportsman of the Year, prioritized his long-term wellness over his prowess as a 24-year-old linebacker. Here, the A’s remain the quirky darlings whose winning defies reason and whose brilliant, Hollywood-famed GM, Billy Beane, finally may have outmaneuvered himself into a pretzel after trying to win it all last season. Here, the Raiders are at a low point in on-field cred as they threaten to move yet again, which, ideally, would hasten a gutting of the Coliseum — weep, you costumed loons — and lead to a new baseball-only park that restores the beautiful hillside views of yesteryear. Here, you have David Shaw, the coach the 49ers should have hired, mixing football prominence with Stanford’s cooler-than-Harvard academic boom. Here, you have a maddening hockey franchise owned by someone who may or may not exist.
Here, there still are tremors. Only they happen in the stadiums and arenas, one entrenched as the best park in baseball, another as the most intimate pit in the NBA.
And what is coming next winter? Did you say the Super Bowl? Imagine life as the first city to win a World Series, win an NBA Finals and host a Super Bowl in a 15-month period. What’s next, the Raiders going 8-8?
Amid those possibilities, I arrive as the sports director and lead columnist at the Examiner, which makes me a management guy for the first time and probably sparks visions of Bart Simpson being handed keys to the corporate bathroom. Someone suggested I print Zuckerberg-like business cards — “I’m Sports Director, Bitch” — but a wiser idea is putting together smart, gritty, daily sports coverage that brings high energy, intelligent debate, responsible news-gathering, and an element often forgotten in these scandal-dominated times — fun! — to the Bay Area.
My mission statement as a columnist, and as an editor by extension, is fierce independence. We will be big on topicality, immediacy, and perspective. On my watch, we will not drive traffic with trash, and we will not buckle to sports owners, athletes, industry cronyism, or social-media creeps. I’ll repeat what I’ve placed on the front page of this site: “It’s vital to have independent voices who aren’t stifled by institutional filters (while) recognizing that sports has taken complex and unprecedented turns and why the need for robust, serious commentary and investigative reporting is stronger than ever. Sports should be covered by commentators who are editorially and financially detached from the big mechanism, respectful that the fan also is a consumer who invests his passions, his mind, his time and his wallet.”
Translation: No one is telling me what to write or say. It wasn’t that way at ESPN — where the North Carolina academic-fraud scandal hasn’t been attacked with nearly the energy of other sports investigations, perhaps because the company president is a Tar Heel. We were told to reserve comments on our TV show when the network was cutting a massive college football deal or doing urgent soccer business. In Chicago radio, I was ordered to sign a form promising I wouldn’t criticize the White Sox and Bulls — the station was trying to do a rights-fee deal with the teams’ insufferable owner, Jerry Reinsdorf — and when I refused, I was fired the day after Christmas.
At the Chicago Sun-Times, I was told to avoid certain Reinsdorf-related topics and rip the Cubs at will (they were owned then by the rival Tribune) when I wasn’t being threatened in press boxes by wacko colleagues, forearm-shivered against a wall by an editor-in-chief, navigating through a cesspool where the paper’s top two executives wound up in jail or dealing with a national firestorm after the White Sox manager, twice-since-fired Ozzie Guillen, called me a “(bleeping) fag.” He did so while criticizing me for not going to his clubhouse, conveniently disregarding that too many visits had become setups in which someone would try to start an incident with me, creating news I did not wish to make.
No intimidation tactic stopped me from writing what the hell I wanted, until I realized in 2008 that a dysfunctional paper had no real future, prompting me to hand back a million bucks in guaranteed money and resign peacefully. Not dealing with it well, the paper had Roger Ebert, the legendary film critic, call me “a rat” in an open letter. On the Great Wall at the Beijing Olympics, I’d had an epiphany: Why risk dropping dead, after suffering a Bruce Bochy-like heart issue a year earlier, for those people at that godforsaken place?
I weighed offers and signed a deal as national columnist at America Online, one of those web initiatives that talked big, threw money at dozens of writers, then cut bait — as it struck a content deal with Arianna Huffington. I wrote a book, then tried a national writing-and-radio content site only to realize such “boutique” destinations need constant investment infusions from entrepreneurs. Over these last four years, the way news is reported, analyzed, and disseminated has changed to the point of being unrecognizable and disturbing. The internet has enabled too much irresponsibility and ignorance. A business that is wilder and younger still must have professional standards, or it becomes an Alfred E. Neuman self-parody that no one takes seriously and has the believability of a seventh-grade bathroom wall.
The media should be firm but fair, edgy but accurate. I realize this more than ever now, having experienced my own news-cycle storm that made me understand why people in sports — and everywhere, really — dislike and distrust the media. To recap, I was accused of domestic violence offenses I did not commit by a plaintiff who tried, without success, to win a financial reward in a civil suit. Not only did that suit fail quickly, the original case was dismissed and expunged (“Not guilty,” read the court documents), which means there was no conviction. Expungements, as The New York Times recently noted, are issued rarely and with considerable diligence.
I’ve maintained my innocence from the start, never acknowledged guilt, and only pleaded no contest four years ago because coverage of the case was absurdly one-sided against me and littered with false allegations published as facts. Pleading no contest allowed me to save the half-million dollars (or more) in additional legal fees required in a Los Angeles court proceeding so I could keep my youngest daughter in college, important when ESPN played judge and jury from 3,000 miles away and removed me from its TV show without contacting me or my attorney.
Know this: Just because someone is accused doesn’t mean he is guilty, and just because one pleads no contest doesn’t mean he is acknowledging guilt. I did not hit anyone. I did not stalk anyone. I do not hit or stalk people. No one abhors domestic violence more than I, as the father of two amazing grown daughters who never were exposed to it, and no one was more disgusted by the Ray Rice video last year — not only the sheer hideousness but the chilling reality that every public figure accused of this crime, whether that person is guilty or not, is bound to be associated with Rice. I’ve seen firsthand how sleazy it all is — traffic-obsessed media, sloppy and dishonest police work, headline-seeking prosecutors, predisposed judges, a rival lawyer who advised my lawyer not to represent me. I wrote about it three and a half years ago in my e-book, The System, and I’ve learned a mean lesson about watching my associations.
In my case, only one media outlet has bothered to try to complete the story and publish news of the expungement. And that happened only when I had the document sent to a confused San Francisco Chronicle reporter earlier this month — he said he was having trouble finding it — and demanded that he publish it, as did my attorney. That didn’t stop the Chronicle‘s tweeting editor-in-chief, who should know better, from mischaracterizing a quote of mine from her own paper and calling me a name that does not legally apply. Since the announcement of my appointment at the Examiner, how many news outlets have written about the expungement even after the Chronicle grudgingly reported it? None that I’ve seen. I’d suggest media outlets require all writers and editors to take law classes. It took a lecture by one of GQ‘s attorneys to force the magazine’s editors to retract/correct a lie that I’d videotaped the aforementioned ESPN executive and tried to extort the company into giving me a story assignment. And even in doing that, GQ still got it very wrong. The Chicago Tribune had to make its own correction after piggybacking GQ without calling me.
We will cover media, including ESPN, when necessary for our readers. We will be fair, but we won’t tolerate amateurs and arrogance — such as, ESPN’s sneaky habit of taking credit for stories first broken by other outlets. I cast a critical eye at the media behemoth long before I worked there, wasn’t allowed to when I did work there for eight years, and will continue to do so now, understanding the network’s powerful, all-encompassing place in sports and how it impacts fans.
It has been fun getting away from this psycho media swirl and discovering new peeps in California and elsewhere, while appreciating relationships with friends in and out of the business. Healthy and jacked, I’m ready to put out a cool sports section in a wonderful part of the world. The Chronicle reporter asked me if I understood the “political atmosphere in San Francisco.” All I know about the atmosphere is that the Warriors have an easier path to the NBA Finals by avoiding Kevin Durant in the first round, the Giants already are down Hunter Pence in a dreaded odd-numbered year, and the 49ers are looking dumb and doomed.
Recently, I spoke to a media class at Northwestern University. Most questions were about how to find a job in today’s tight market. I told the students to practice their writing, video, and audio crafts every day, on their own websites and blogs, and that if they can withstand rejection and pain, the business remains very satisfying and worthwhile. I said I’ve had good reasons to try other life options, but that I’d decided to accept a terrific job in a spectacular city after a few challenging moments.
Sometimes, you just have to step around some pee to appreciate the $6 ice cream cone.